Fast-forward a few decades, and Lopez is the new executive director of the AIDS Center of Queens County (ACQC), which last week celebrated the opening of a LGBT Youth Drop-In Center at 62-07 Woodside Avenue in Woodside.
“There were no services back then and you would get ostracized by your family, but now we really want to see kids succeed,” Lopez said. “The world is different now. We’re getting more progressive, but you still see homeless kids because we all don’t have supportive families.”
The center in Woodside will assist local homeless LGBT and at-risk youth by providing meals and hot showers, arranging spaces for napping, assisting in laundry, and helping to look for permanent housing.
The center staff will also help young people go back to high school or college, as well as find work programs and provide job-search services.
“A lot of kids coming into the center are from the city and Queens, and they are kids that you wouldn’t know are homeless,” Lopez said. “They’re on the subways and on the streets and we want to help.
“There are no requirements or fees, just come in,” Lopez added.
About five years ago, ACQC opened a drop-in center in Astoria. However, they found the location was difficult to access for many of the homeless youth.
And due to the shelter’s shared space with a church, their weekday hours were limited and the center had to be closed on the weekends.
However, the Astoria center was still a safe place for many homeless youth, helping about 15 people a day.
The Woodside location also offers other services that complement their own programs. For example, the site is also home to the Mental Health Providers of Western Queens.
Shirley Bejarano, ACQC director of Education and Prevention, said the center is making sure they are educating youth about getting tested for HIV and new prevention methods.
Two and a half years ago, ACQC became affiliated with the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), the largest global AIDS organization.
“The highest percentage of young people who are homeless do identify as LGBT, and we need to make sure we have the safety net services available because it’s extremely important,” said Michael Camacho of AHF.
The organization is already hearing from local schools who have homeless students. Lopez anticipates the Woodside center to begin helping 40 to 50 people a week before expanding.
The center has two full-time staff members in addition to peers and part-time staff.
“Not all of my team identifies and that’s why I think they’re so special,” said Cassildra Aguilera said. “If we had more people like my team, we would have healthier and happier young people.”
Ikea Williams, who writes under the name Keys Will, performed two pieces from “Chrysalis: Not Quite The Butterfly,” which is about being homeless as an LGBT youth in Jamaica.
Williams met Aguilera nearly 11 years ago at a drop-in center in Jamaica. Although the center wasn’t geared towards LGBT youth, it felt like it because there were so many young people there who identified.
“Being here now, and seeing that this center is directed towards LGBT youth, it’s like we’ve come a long way,” Williams said.